Oprah mixes talent and wisdom with wealth

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There's a great scene in "Lee Daniels' The Butler" where Oprah Winfrey shows more conventionally minded actresses how it's done.

As Gloria Gaines, Ms. Winfrey settles into a dark place as the neglected wife of the movie's eponymous hero, the workaholic White House butler Cecil Gaines, played by Forest Whitaker.

Terrence Howard, gold-tooth slick and exuding an alcohol-fueled presumption, plays Howard, the Gaines' neighbor and would-be lover to the very married Gloria.

Using booze and cigarettes to mitigate her loneliness while Cecil deals with the day-to-day neediness of the Kennedy administration, Gloria finds herself sitting on the edge of the family couch one night with Howard, who pours on the serpentine charm.

While Howard's hand is on his neighbor's left knee awaiting permission to explore assorted landmarks along her floral print dress, Gloria pays lip service to marital fidelity with brutally comic put-downs.

Still, Gloria is clearly tempted by her handsome neighbor's pleas for a night together, despite her words to the contrary. Even in the smoky darkness, her face is a mix of desire and anguished regret. Her performance, which rivals Mr. Whitaker's as the strongest in the film, is a fascinating interplay of virtue and voluptuousness enhanced by the character's emotional vulnerability. It provides valuable insight into the character and the actress who plays her so well.

Watching scenes of dancing and socializing in "The Butler," it is easy to forget that Gloria is Oprah Winfrey, the billionaire media mogul who has become so ubiquitous in our culture over the past three decades that we assume we know everything about her. Her rich and nuanced performance in "The Butler" could be chalked up as further evidence that there are layers to Oprah Winfrey the actress that she -- and we -- have yet to explore.

I started thinking along these lines last week when I heard about Oprah's encounter with a truly stupid sales clerk in Zurich who wouldn't let her inspect a $38,000 Tom Ford handbag because the clerk assumed from Oprah's appearance she couldn't afford it.

Ms. Winfrey considered the snub to be evidence of the pernicious grip of racism. She certainly has a better sense of the attitude of sales clerks on the continent than I do -- a similar thing happened to her at a Hermes shop a few years ago. It could be that Europe is cursed with both racism and unusually dull-witted customer service.

Some have suggested that now that she's free of the tyranny of a network syndicated talk show where she has to appeal to the broadest common denominator, Oprah Winfrey can fly a more "militant" flag when it comes to issues of race, politics and inequality.

She is venturing into Democratic politics again with her high-profile endorsement of Newark Mayor Cory Booker's bid to be New Jersey's next senator. After backing then-Illinois Sen. Barack Obama during his first run for the presidency, Ms. Winfrey sat out his re-election campaign because she had her hands full trying to turn around the underwhelming performance of the Oprah Winfrey Network (OWN).

In the last year, Ms. Winfrey has managed to turn OWN's fortunes around with a slate of shows that appeal to working- and middle-class African-American women. Perhaps her creative resurgence of late is a function of her desire to reconnect with this long lost -- and, some might say, underappreciated -- audience.

Ms. Winfrey's willingness to identify with the plight of black women who are hassled on the retail level every day by jejune racism is fascinating, even though her inconvenience at not being able to inspect an expensive handbag is on a totally different scale.

I suspect that she didn't tell the story of the snub to "Entertainment Tonight" to galvanize a pity party. Though justifiably irritated, Ms. Winfrey was probably being mischievous, because it is difficult to come up with many examples of being racially profiled or discriminated against when you're one of the richest people on the planet.

She could've made a discreet call to the store's owner and gotten the clerk fired if she were the vengeful type. Had she kept it quiet, she still would've gotten a profuse apology while maintaining her mystique of unperturbed control.

Instead, Ms. Winfrey chose to be identified with those still in the trenches for the struggle for basic dignity. Her role as Gloria in "The Butler" reminded her of something she temporarily forgot in her ascension to the top of the entertainment world -- refusing to be predictable and safe can only help the Oprah Winfrey brand in the long run.


Tony Norman: tnorman@post-gazette.com, 412-263-1631; Twitter @TonyNormanPG.


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